The money pours in

Political non-profits rake in millions of dollars from rich donors

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Driven by a surge in giving by wealthy individuals, political non-profits raised more than $59 million during the first three months of this year, with much of that money going to groups dedicated to defeating President George W. Bush in November, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows.

Three individuals—film producer Stephen L. Bing, financier George Soros and insurance executive Peter B. Lewis—gave $11 million during January, February and March to several "527 organizations," so-called because of the section of the Internal Revenue Code under which they're organized. Five other individuals, all supporters of liberal causes, contributed at least $1 million each during the same period, according to the Center's analysis of reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

The $11 million from Bing, Lewis and Soros during the first quarter boosted their combined total to 527 committees to $26 million since disclosure began in late 2000. Most of that money has come in the past 18 months. Bing's $5.1 million in contributions this year boosted his 527 contributions since 2000 to $9.8 million, second among individuals only to actress Jane Fonda, who gave more than $13 million—mostly in support of abortion rights—during 2000 and 2002.

Most of Bing's money this year has gone to the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, which splits its proceeds between two anti-Bush groups: the Media Fund and America Coming Together. The Joint Victory Campaign raised $15.3 million during the first quarter, more than any other 527. (In calculating the total amount raised and spent by all 527s, the Center subtracted the Joint Victory Campaign's figures as that money is passed on to other 527 committees.) In addition, America Votes Inc., an umbrella group affiliated with ACT, the Media Fund and some two dozen other left-of-center organizations, raised $280,000. Another group opposing Bush, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, reported raising $3.9 million during the first quarter and gave $50,000 to a new Internet-based fundraising committee called Click Back America.

Soros was the third-largest individual donor during the first quarter—giving $1.6 million—while Bing contributed nearly $5 million to the Joint Victory Fund and another $150,000 to a new organization called Americans for Progress & Opportunity, which drew heavy support from trial lawyers. APO raised $1.3 million in its initial filing with the IRS. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp., gave a combined $4.3 million to the Joint Victory Campaign, the MoveOn 527 and the Marijuana Policy Project Political Fund. (Full disclosure: The Center for Public Integrity has received funding from Soros' Open Society Institute.)

MoveOn and the Media Fund began running television advertisements attacking Bush earlier this year, while ACT has concentrated on registering voters. Among the 527 groups that collected the most money in 2004, the top Republican group was the Republican Governors Association, which raised $5 million for use in state races. Not counting the Joint Victory Campaign, 15 political non-profits raised at least $1 million during the quarter, including four 527s operated by labor unions.

Other top 527 groups in 2004 include the National Association of Realtors, which raised $1.4 million from its members, the League of Conservation Voters ($1.1 million) and the College Republican National Committee, which reported raising more than $1 million, mostly in small amounts. The 527 groups—not counting the Joint Victory Campaign 2004—combined to spend $50 million during the first quarter.

Political nonprofits drew money from many familiar names in the fundraising world, from brewer Anheuser-Busch, Slim-Fast Foods founder S. Daniel Abraham and philanthropist Louise L. Gund. But they also attracted some newer donors without much of a record in federal campaigns. Frank Brunckhorst, chairman of Boar's Head Provisions Company Inc., gave $500,000 to the Joint Victory Campaign. According to Federal Election Commission data, Brunckhorst, of Sarasota, Fla., has given a total of $38,501 to candidates, parties and PACs since March 2002. The Center for Public Integrity could not reach Brunckhorst for comment.

Other donors who previously had given unrestricted "soft money" donations to national party committees have increased their contributions to 527 committees. Venture capitalist Andrew S. Rappaport of Redwood City, Calif., gave the Democratic National Committee $150,000 in 2000 and 2001. This year, Rappaport gave more than $1 million combined to the New Democrat Network, a centrist group, and Music for America, a group that describes its goal as "getting 1 million new progressive voters to participate in the 2004 elections" through concerts and other activities. A message left with Rappaport's assistant at August Capital, his employer, was not returned.

Although 527 committees cannot directly contribute to federal candidates or committees, they can engage in a variety of activities including advertising, direct mail and voter turnout campaigns. The Federal Election Commission last week conducted public hearings on whether 527 groups and other political non-profits should be regulated by federal election laws, which could limit the amount of money such groups are able to raise from contributors. A decision could come in May or June.

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